A Volunteer from the Audience – a horror short story

Creepy clown.
Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

Rich found himself sitting on a wooden bench in the back of a circus tent. He couldn’t remember why they’d decided to come but it was probably Jen’s idea. She loved a good spectacle and there was plenty here. The fire breather illuminating the entrance; the juggler tossing chainsaws; the acrobats spinning like sequined nebulae overhead. The elephants and bears were a surprise, Rich thought that modern circuses had given that up, but there was something amazing about seeing a lion open its jaws wide.

The show began. The ringmaster swept his top hat down in a bow, blood red tailcoat swirling, then waggled his eyebrows. Eyes like bottomless pits stared right at Rich, who swallowed. How could a face look so expressive and so empty at once?

“Ladies and gentlemen.” The ringmaster’s smile bared skull white teeth. “Thank you again for joining us. It’s going to be a night you’ll never forget.”

Rich glanced around. Where had Jen got to? She was going to miss out. Perhaps she was buying refreshments. She always bought sweets at the cinema, why not at the circus?

A magician emerged.

“I need a volunteer from the audience,” he said. “How about you, miss?”

A young woman stepped up and lay down on a table. A box closed over her, with only her head and feet protruding. The magician produced a saw and started cutting. The audience laughed politely at familiar jokes while the saw scraped lower.

The woman screamed. Her head and feet spasmed. Rich stared, fascinated. It had to be a trick, a plant from the audience and a bag of red water. Part of him wanted it to be real, an awful mistake making a real night to remember, but then the magician wouldn’t be grinning, would he?

The audience stopped laughing, then started again, and Rich joined in, the tension snapping like an over-strained thread. The woman went limp and they laughed louder; they were in on the joke, weren’t they?

Clowns pushed the magician and his trick to one side. The ringmaster stepped forward.

“Don’t worry, we’ll be seeing them again later,” he said with a wink.

A knife thrower emerged, her bare arms covered with jagged tattoos. A knife spun gleaming through the air.

“I need a volunteer from the audience,” she said. “How about you, sir?”

The clowns strapped a man in an old-fashioned suit onto a vertical disk, a wooden target with splintered gouges where the knives had struck. The knife thrower pulled on a blindfold, tossed a blade through the air, caught it perfectly between her fingertips. The ringmaster spun the wheel and the man in the suit turned.

The knife thrower drew back her arm. The audience took a collective breath. A blade twisted end over end through the air and buried itself in the man’s chest.

Rich gasped, fixated on that spinning body and the pattern of blood on the floor. Then the ringmaster laughed, the audience laughed, and Rich was swept into the sound. Of course, it was that sort of circus. They would reveal the trick in the end. For now, clowns pushed the spinning board to one side.

A fire breather, head and chest shaved and gleaming, stepped into the ring with a burning brand in one hand and a bottle in the other.

“I need a volunteer from the audience,” he said, and looked Rich in the eye. “How about you?”

Rich scrambled eagerly across the seats and into the ring, let himself be tied to a post by the clowns. He’d never known that fire breathers needed volunteers. He wondered what the trick was. But even as he wondered, he glanced around, trying to glimpse the sawn woman and stabbed man, wondering in spite of everything if he might see a corpse.

Past the magician’s box, he saw Jen sitting in the audience. He wanted to wave, but his hands were tied. She had a bag of sweets. There were flecks of dark foam at the corners of her pale blue lips.

Ice ran through Rich’s veins as he watched her place another boiled sweet in her mouth, moving with terrible, stiff precision.

He looked across the rest of the crowd. Next to Jen was the magician’s volunteer, her guts pooled in her lap. Beyond her was the man in the old-fashioned suit, knife still protruding from his chest. The woman behind him looked like her head had been mauled by a lion, and flanking her were a couple with twisted, broken limbs.

Rich realised, with terrible certainty, that he had seen this before.

The fire breather took a swig from his bottle and held up the burning brand. His eyes glinted red.

“No, wait, don’t, I—”

Rich screamed as the inferno engulfed him. Through crackling flames, he heard the crowd laugh. Time stretched out in bright agony, until at last there was the sweet relief of oblivion.

Rich woke to find himself sitting on a wooden bench in the back of a circus tent. He couldn’t remember why they’d decided to come here. It was probably Jen’s idea.

The ringmaster swept his top hat down in a bow, blood red tailcoat swirling, then looked up and waggled his eyebrows.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he called out. “Thank you for joining us again. It’s going to be a night you’ll never forget.”


A few days early with this month’s flash fiction, but it seemed a shame not to get this one out in time for Halloween. It’s not my usual thing, but I do like to dip a toe in the darkness around this time of year.

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook, updates on new releases, and a flash story straight to your inbox once a month.


This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is silver-and-gold-cover.jpg

The goldsmith Cualli lives in a land of endless summer, where blood sacrifices hold back the dark of winter. Through her craft, she grants power to priests and soldiers, channelling the magic of Emperor Sun. But what matters to Cualli is not power; it is proving herself as the empire’s finest goldsmith.

Not everyone feels blessed by the empire’s blood-stained faith. Dissent is turning to rebellion and the rebels want Cualli on their side, whether she likes it or not. When the season of sacrifice threatens the lives of her closest friends, Cualli must face a choice: will she fight for change through the illegal magic of silver, or will she bask in her own triumph and the endless golden summer?

Silver and Gold, a novella about friendship, magic, is out now.

Out Now – It Will Have Its Way

“Say what you would about East Berlin—and after two years Jo had a lot to say—but at least the men here were too scared to misbehave. Back in the States, every veteran thought his service gave him the right to get between her legs, and any man who’d stayed home was over-compensating for it. Never mind that Jo had risked more than any of them, playing native among her Grandma Kleiber’s people, praying not to fall foul of any of the smart Nazis…”

Did you ever wonder what would happen if dark forces stalked the streets of post-war Berlin? I mean, darker forces than Soviet spies, CIA agents, and black-market profiteers? OK, maybe that’s dark enough, but I’ve got a new story out this week that adds something more, with elritch powers stirring under the city. “It Will Have Its Way”, a historical horror story, is in the new issue of Aurealis, Australia’s longest-running small press sci-fi and fantasy magazine. Aurealis #141 also features stories from A. Marie Carter and Benjamin Keyworth, as well as non-fiction and reviews, all for the fabulously low price of $2.99, so go check it out.

Blood Red Tie – a fantasy short story

Image by mohamed
Hassan from Pixabay

I sit across the desk from Justin, hoping that he can’t sense the racing of my pulse.

He’s thin as a new grown willow, pale faced and straight lipped. His suit would be ordinary if it weren’t so well fitted, a softer and more presentable skin than the one beneath. His red tie is the only spot of colour. Red for passion. Red for roses. Red for a drop of blood.

His arms hang limp, fingers twitching in expectation. There’s something he wants to grasp, whether to rend or to embrace. The two are much the same with him. He cannot love without destroying, cannot destroy without holding that moment dear.

Not like me. I have to make a choice.

“I have a task for you,” he rasps. Does he sound inhuman, or am I just giving in to suspicion? “A place I need you to go.”

We’re well past the point where I could refuse. He’s owned me since he bought up my broken business.

The wooden stake up my sleeve, that’s all mine.

“What is it?” I ask, trying to sound friendly.

“I need you to carry a message.”

“Can’t it go by email?”


His lip twitches and a drop of blood oozes from the corner. That’s when I’m certain that the desiccated corpses in the news are real.

“This is personal,” he says, holding up an envelope. “You don’t mind, do you?”

“Of course not.”  I force a smile, keep eye contact, and let the stake slide down my sleeve. “Happy to help.”

I walk around the desk and lean over. As one of my hands closes on the envelope, the other slams the stake into his chest.

The movement is easy as falling off a cliff. His suits tears, the red tie crumples, and the stake goes straight through into the chair behind. I had braced myself for the spatter and stink of blood, but I wasn’t ready for this.

His skin ripples and falls away.

A tingle runs up my arm, hundreds of tiny lips chewing on flesh. I jerk back and black dots tumble from my sleeve. Ticks. Hundreds of them. They run across my chest, probing, biting, feasting, a thousand pricks of pain.

I stagger back and fling off my jacket. So many bites now that it feels like I’m burning.

I stumble over a chair and fall to the floor. Buttons fly as I rip my shirt open. I see the ticks crawling past my waist and up my neck, covering every inch of skin.

There’s a mass of tiny black bodies where Justin’s face had been. They drip from a mimicry of lips, cascading over my face. I open my mouth to scream, but the ticks tumble in and I choke.

He crouches beside me and lays a hand on my shoulder.

“Don’t believe the stories,” he says.

My throat is swollen shut, my body parched. I want to struggle, but a terrible lethargy has seized me. All that’s left is the pain of my skin.

The last thing I see is Justin’s blood red tie.


If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.


By Sword, Stave or Stylus

By Sword, Stave or Stylus - High Resolution

A gladiator painting with manticore blood.

A demon detective policing Hell.

A ninja who can turn into shadow.

Prepare to be swept away to worlds beyond our own in these thirteen short fantasy stories.

Action, art and mystery all feature in this collection, available in all ebook formats.

From reader reviews:

‘These fantasy genre stories take wordsmithing and storytelling to great heights.’ – Writerbees Book Reviews

‘There isn’t a single story in here I don’t love. All short and sweet (or dark), all fantasy with history woven through, all a slightly skewed perspective that will make you rethink assumptions. Totally worth a read.’

Exterminator – a flash horror story

Joel walked into the kitchen. The linoleum was cold beneath his feet and the room smelt faintly of refuse, a reminder to take the bins out tomorrow. He should do the washing up too, but not at three in the morning.

He bumped into a chair, cursed, and walked back to the doorway. He flipped a switch and the light buzzed into brightness, the bare bulb casting a stark light and sickly shadows.

For a moment, he heard chittering, but then it vanished. Work was getting to him, imagining bugs where there weren’t any.

Joel walked over to the sink, rinsed the sticky dregs of beer from the bottom of a glass, and filled it with water. He reached inside his boxers and scratched his arse while he drank.

Through a gap in the curtains he could see his van with its company logo of a crushed beetle. His neighbours hated that van, but that didn’t stop them hiring him to deal with their infestations, from ants to woodworm to rats. Hypocrites, the lot of them.

There was the chittering again, and a single tap. Joel turned around to see a beetle lying on its back on his kitchen table.

He grabbed a pan off the stove and slammed it down, crushing the insect. He grinned as he did it, then grinned even wider as he pulled the pan away and saw the results. The biggest beetle he’d ever seen, and he’d crushed it.

Sometimes he dreamed of doing that to his neighbours too. Maybe one day. For now, he’d made do with laying down poisoned treats for number fifteen’s cat. He’d got some dark looks after that fleabag died, but no-one could prove anything, so fuck them.

The chittering came again. Two more beetles landed on the table, even larger than the last one. These ones scurried away fast and the pan hit the table with an angry but ineffective clang.

The bugs landed on the linoleum. There was a tickling as one ran across Joel’s foot and up his leg.

“Get off me, you bastard.” Joel swatted at the creature, but it scurried around the back and up his thigh. “Get the fuck off!”

He reached around and grabbed the bug. Pincers dug into the flesh at the top of his leg. There was a flash of pain as he wrenched the thing off and flung it away. Blood dribbled, hot and sticky, down the back of his thigh.

More skittering. The tap of bugs landing on the table. Beetles, maggots, cockroaches, worms. Joel’s eyes widened as he looked up. Shadows were moving inside the light bulb, turning into the outlines of creatures that emerged at the top, becoming real as they slipped between socket and glass.

Joel stumbled back across the kitchen, tripped over a chair and landed with a thud. His head hit a cupboard door and black dots danced across his vision. When he blinked them away, they were replaced by giant flies buzzing around him, beetles climbing up his body, maggots wriggling beneath, the touch of their bodies making Joel’s skin writhe in disgust.

“Get away from me!”

He grabbed the counter and hauled himself to his feet. Bugs fell away, pattering onto the floor, but more clung to him, digging their pincers into his flesh, crawling through his hair and towards his face.

The light. They were coming from the light. Turn it off and this nightmare would be over.

But as he reached for the switch more crawled out of it, cascading down the wall and across the floor.

“Help!” Joel screamed. “Someone help me!”

If his neighbours heard then none responded. Instead, a beetle seized its chance to climb into his open mouth.

Joel froze in horror as the thing wriggled across his tongue and brushed against the inside of his cheeks. Then it was at the back of his throat and it was too late to scream.

With a wild, flailing movement Joel slapped the light switch. Something crunched beneath his hand, spattering him with its insides, but he still hit the switch.

The light went out.

The chittering continued.

Joel sank choking to the ground. Bugs crawled across him as the world faded to black.


This story was inspired by an art exhibit at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds, where bugs were emerging from light fittings. I’ve never seen contemporary art so clearly ready to inspire horror.

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.


By Sword, Stave or Stylus

By Sword, Stave or Stylus - High Resolution

A gladiator painting with manticore blood.

A demon detective policing Hell.

A ninja who can turn into shadow.

Prepare to be swept away to worlds beyond our own in these thirteen short fantasy stories.

Action, art and mystery all feature in this collection, available in all ebook formats.

From reader reviews:

‘These fantasy genre stories take wordsmithing and storytelling to great heights.’ – Writerbees Book Reviews

‘There isn’t a single story in here I don’t love. All short and sweet (or dark), all fantasy with history woven through, all a slightly skewed perspective that will make you rethink assumptions. Totally worth a read.’

Fleeting Thoughts – a flash fantasy story

I make my way to the back room of the library, a place of dust and shadows, of leather bindings and musty pages. The cold and the quiet should be soothing after weeks in the summer city heat, but what should and what is stand apart, separated by the finest of hairs. Instead of calm, I feel tension, my mind stretched out like the skin of a drum. The clatter of a chair down the room is like a drummer beating an irregular rhythm on my soul.

I set my bag down on a table and make for the folklore shelves. Near to them, that chair shifts again, its weary wood creaking beneath the weight of the room’s other occupant. His face is hidden beneath the hood of a Nike sweatshirt, but I can see jagged, broken fingernails tapping against an old biography of Descartes.

Even with company, I can always lose myself in books. I scan the spines, torn between researching animal myths and wanting to crack open a volume of local ghost stories. If I think about it, I’m sure I can wind the two together. After all, that’s what I do – follow the paths of logic and imagination, turning separate facts into links in a chain.

I catch a glimpse of movement just too soon to avoid human contact. The hooded man reaches out for a book on the shelf in front of me. I flinch and as I do so my hand brushes against his.

The touch of those ill-kept, twisted fingers sends a shudder through me, followed a moment later by something else. A rush of thoughts – incidents, facts, and connections, knowledge I didn’t have before. I let out a childish laugh and take a step back, pondering one of the strange creatures I’ve seen, like an old engraving of Black Shuck and yet not. I can use that. It’s perfect for… for… for something.

Now the image is gone. I shake my head, as though I might somehow shake the thought loose. There was a dog, wasn’t there? Some dark creature? Something I felt excited for?

I look at the man in the hooded. He looks back with soft, empty eyes.

“I saw…” I frown, almost cursing myself out loud. “Did you put something in my head?”

He takes a step back, arms held wide, face a picture of innocence.

“What are you?” I stare at him. There’s a smoothness to his face that isn’t quite right, like an oversized glossy cover hiding the stained bindings of a hardback. The musty smell of old books turns sour in the air.

Why am I looking at this man? I thought I knew, but that knowledge drifts away like a dust mote through a sunbeam, vanishing into shadow. I look him up and down, trying to make sense of it all. He’s wearing trainers, jeans, a hoody. His face is unsettling, unfamiliar, ghostly pale. And what are those soft shoes that he’s wearing?

He reaches out and again there comes a wave of insight. Thoughts of who he is, where he has been, what he has seen. I try to catch them as they pass but they slip through me and are gone.
I’ve spent years pursuing the supernatural, but if I’ve read of something like him then I can’t remember it. I spool through memories, long lines of ghosts, fey beasts, and urban legends. None quite fits, but which is closest?

As I try to recall them again, there’s nothing there. My own memories have been carried away with his.

“Know me,” he whispers, reaching out again.

I step back, hit a chair, and fall across it, landing with a thud on worn floorboards.

My mind burns for lost knowledge like a drowning man yearns for air. I try to find the thoughts I still have, to connect the links in the chain, to hold them together. I cling to anything I can. The logo on his sweatshirt, that symbol of victory, of sportsmanship, of an ancient god, of a brand contorting conformity and defiance as if the two could be one, of…

Why am I staring at a white tick on red cloth? It’s just a swoosh. A nothing.

He leans over. I still remember enough to make my heart race and the breath catch in my throat. The harder I struggle to focus, the more thoughts flee me, like sand trickling through my hands.

I force myself to close my eyes. To find shelter in simplicity. To follow the path of the Buddha, of the ancient ascetics, of…

Then comes the end of the chain. There’s nothing here. Just an emptiness where the things that matter to me were.

I look up into dark eyes set amid a pale face.

For one last moment, I think.

And then…

* * *

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then check out my collection of fantasy stories, By Sword, Stave, or Stylus. Or you can sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

Fantasycon 2018

Writing can be a pretty lonely business, so when there’s an opportunity to meet up with likeminded people, I’ll leap on it. And last weekend was one of the best of those meetups – Fantasycon.

Fantasycon 2018 took place in Chester. As always, it was run by a team of hardworking and helpful volunteers – if any of you are reading this, thank you so much! And as always, it was full of cool fantasy fans and writers from across the UK and beyond.

I love Fantasycon. I know enough people in the community now I can always find someone to chat with. It’s great catching up with people in the bar, where I spend most of the weekend. And that leads to meeting even more great people to chat with next year.

Spending a weekend with people who share your passions is great. You know that you can always find things to talk about. If the person you’re talking with doesn’t share your enthusiasm for a particular book or movie then they’ll at least understand it. It’s an emotionally uplifting experience, as well as one that fills me with good ideas about what and how to write.

Of course, there’s also the convention programming, a range of panels, talks, and readings. I can’t summarise everything I saw this year, but here’s what I attended:

  • Blogging in Genre Fiction – Kit Power, Alisdair Stuart, Micah Yongo, and Kate Coe talked with passion about how they blog. Turns out it’s mostly about that passion. And now I have a bunch more blogs to follow.
  • The Elderly Guard – Charlotte Bond, R B Watkinson, David Stokes, Dion Winton-Polak, and Mark Latham discussed older characters in fantasy. My main takeaway – in an apocalypse, older people have lots of useful skills, so keep them around.
  • Fairy Tales and Folk Horror – Charlotte Bond, Tom Johnstone, Teika Bellamy, and Susan Boulton talking traditional stories. Tom pointed out how dark the end of Beauty and the Beast is, with Belle marrying the man who held her prisoner, and how this could be read as about falling in love in an arranged marriage. *shudder*
  • Breaking the Glass Slipper live – One of my favourite podcasts, this time discussing mysteries in genre fiction. Excellent guest work by Claire North and RJ Barker. Look out for that in their podcast feed.
  • From Colonisation to Decolonisation – Nick Wood, Naomi Foyle, Stewart Hotston, and Allanah Hunt talking about colonial and decolonising sf+f. A difficult and important topic, it’s really good to see the fantasy community engage with this, and I’m very happy to just shut up and listen to those with direct experience.

Then there were the panels I took part in:

  • Putting the “Punk” in Fiction, with Lee Harrison, Ren Warom, and Kit Power. As somebody said, adding “punk” to a genre is really just a way of trying to say “look, it’s cool!”, but we still had a great debate about subgenres and making fiction more punk.
  • From Fanon to Canon, moderated by Cheryl Morgan, with Allanah Hunt, Chris Jarvis, and Kate Coe. I wasn’t sure I had anything to say on this, as I don’t write fan fiction, but it turned into a fascinating debate about working with existing stories and the connections between power and culture.
  • Renaissance Fantasy, with Anne Lyle, Jeanette Ng, and Den Patrick. We talked about what good and bad things fantasy writers take from the European Renaissance, what we’re missing out on, and a little bit about other renaissances.

Going to a convention always means finding more books I’d like to read, so the lure of the dealers’ room is impossible to resist. This time I was relatively restrained, only buying two non-fiction collections from Luna Press, one on gender and sexuality in sf+f, the other on African sf+f. I’ve already read the first one, which was full of insightful and fascinating articles. Having started the other this morning, it promises to be the same. Luna Press are doing some great work right now, putting out both innovative fiction and valuable commentary, and I’m pleased to have these on my shelves.

Fantasycon is a great event. If you’re a fan of fantasy or horror fiction and you live in the UK then I heartily recommend it. Next year we’re off to Glasgow – maybe I’ll see you there?

Rhubarb – a flash story

“You’ve got to believe me!” Emma said, gripping the counter like a drunk clutched his last bottle of the night. “It’s the rhubarb. It’s out to kill.”

The police officer gave her a smile so forced it would have shamed a politician.

“I’m sure it is,” she said. “I just need a few minutes and then I’ll take your statement. Why don’t you sit down?”

Emma took a deep breath. There was no time. Claire was missing already, probably dead, like so many others before her. Emma had to make them listen.

“It’s the rhubarb triangle,” she said. “It’s like the Bermuda triangle. Something about that shape. It empowers the dark forces, lets them ooze their way into our world, so they can snatch away our life force.”

“Life force. Right.” The police officer looked away. “How about a soothing cup of tea?”

“They took my sister,” Emma whispered, leaning in close in case they were overheard. “It could be one of us next.”

“Just sit down, pet,” the officer said. “Someone will be with you shortly.”

A sound from the street made Emma look around. A car was rolling past. At the wheel was Dr Stanley, the psychiatrist they’d sent her to after the town council incident. The man who had tried to have her locked up.

“I’m not crazy,” she said. “If you won’t help then I’ll stop them myself!”

She dashed out of the door and away down the street.

To her mild disappointment, nobody gave chase.


All the data Emma had gathered – the missing persons reports, the stories of mysterious incidents, the way the rhubarb lorries followed the ley lines – it all led her to this one place. A large rhubarb shed on a farm outside Wakefield, it was the sort of building farmers brought rhubarb into to force grow them before the so-called harvest. All a cover story, of course. There was probably a portal to another dimension there, hidden among the manure and wilted leaves, or some chasm from which the dark forces of the rhubarb triangle emerged.

She crept up to the barn. There were no windows. They said that was necessary to make the rhubarb grow tender, but she knew it was a cover story, a way of hiding the truth.

With trembling hands, she squeezed the bolt cutters shut. The lock fell to the ground. The door creaked open.

Heart pounding in dread, driven on by the need to know the truth, Emma stepped inside.

Something hit her across the back of the head, and the world went black.


Emma’s head hurt. Her limbs wouldn’t move. The elder forces must have taken control of her, letting her stay conscious just so that she could see her coming doom.

The cold, heavy grip of terror settled across her body.

She opened her eyes.

The cold, heavy thing holding her in place wasn’t a void-spawned tentacle or the workings of her mind. It was heavily manured soil, in which she was buried up to the neck.

A dozen people in robes stood over her, lit by candles. One of them held a knife. They were all middle aged or more, with greying hair and an impressive collection of wrinkles.

“Are you going to sacrifice me to elder gods?” Emma whispered.

“Oh no, dear,” the man with the knife said. “We’re going to feed you to the rhubarb. It makes it grow better.”

“You’re compost,” the man said, leaning down until they were almost face to face. “Just like the others before you.”

Emma had gone through horrified already. Now she found herself disappointed.

She wasn’t to die for the sake of fruit.

The soil around her was loosely packed. She managed to work one hand through it, up towards the surface.

“No point wriggling.” The man leaned even lower, bloodshot eyes twinkling. He smelled of blood and Werther’s Originals. “We’ve got you now.”

Emma thrust her hand through the dirt and grabbed the front of the man’s robes. She yanked him down, slamming his nose into the top of the head. It hurt, but his scream made it worthwhile.

She grabbed the knife as it fell from his grasp and pulled herself clear of the dirt, using the fallen man for leverage. Compost fell from her like rain.

“Who else wants to sacrifice me?” she asked with a fearsome grin.


Emma watched the police lead the rhubarb cultists out of the barn, some of them limping or clutching their wounds.

“Sorry about that conspiracy stuff,” Emma said to the officer who had been taking her statement. “I think I went mad for a while.”

“You’re better than this bunch of nutters,” the officer replied.

“Thanks,” Emma said. “Can someone take me home? I need a bath, and a long chat with a counsellor.”

“Of course,” the officer said. “You come this way.”

Behind them, in the darkness of the shed, the rhubarb stirred. The being that sent it had been relying on blood to open a portal.

Now it would have to find another way.

The rhubarb shook with frustration. It hated being kept in the dark.

* * *


The rhubarb triangle is a real thing, honest. Just not a very exciting one.

Unless you really like rhubarb.

Thank you to Emma for the idea for this story. If you enjoyed it, please share it and consider signing up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free e-book as well as stories straight to your inbox every week.

People Are the Worst – Charlotte Bond’s Monstrous

Reading Charlotte Bond’s Monstrous, I finally pinned down why humans are the scariest thing in horror.

I know that “people are the real horror” isn’t an original insight. It’s the central theme of The Walking Dead, and if it’s on big-budget TV then you know it’s not a new idea. But sometimes it’s hard to work out why something works.

Monstrous is all about this. The teenage protagonist Jenny is dragged off to join a commune by her mum. There’s something dangerous lurking in the woods around them, but the real unpleasantness comes from the people. It works incredibly well. One particular act of brutality (vagueness to avoid spoilers, go read the book), had me frozen with tension. It was just so awful and so real.

And that was when it hit me. In horror, the monsters can be more extreme, but the humans are more believable. What they do to each other has a sense of reality. That makes it scarier because it could actually happen.

Worst of all, we can imagine acting like that human more easily than we can imagine acting like the monster. Recognising a potential for darkness within ourselves is the perhaps the most terrifying thing of all.

Monstrous is about how humans are the real monsters. If you want to explore that particular brand of horror, I heartily recommend reading it. Just don’t expect to sleep well afterwards.

Making Horror and Inspiring Emotion – Ian Thomas’s Nine Worlds Panel

Learning from disciplines and genres other than your own is one of the best ways to expand your writing. It helps you look at the craft from different angles and come up with ideas you would never normally encounter. This is especially true when there’s someone smart and insightful talking on the subject. So while I don’t often write horror or games, Ian Thomas’s talk at Nine Worlds on making horror in games gave me some great food for thought.

Looking through my notes, there was plenty of stuff I’ll save for if I ever run live roleplay again. Things like using all your senses, knocking players off balance emotionally so that they stop and watch, or providing a pile of in character documents instead of a character description so that players would fill the gaps and imagine themselves into the character’s life. It’s thinking outside the default approach to games, which is how you make something that stands out.

But there were some lessons that clearly apply to writing as well.

Scare the player/reader, not the character. After all, it’s the reader’s emotions that will keep them engaged. And to a large extent, this applies to other emotions. Whether it’s leading readers into a crush on a romantic lead or making them really angry at the villain, those feelings are the real power in a story. So consider the readers’ emotions.

Put yourself in the player/reader’s shoes. What will they be thinking about at any given point, given the gap between what they know and what you know?

Leave gaps. Our human survival instinct means that we are constantly looking for patterns and jumping at shadows. So create a few bright, clear points where everything is specified, and then leave players/readers to find their way between them. Let their imaginations make it real.

Be careful not to break the player/reader’s mental model of what’s going on. That can wreck their immersion, and so the emotional momentum you’ve built. If you’re going to pull the rug out from under their feet, make sure it’s in a way that adjusts that mental model, not shatters it.

And if you want to read more on how Ian applies this stuff, check out the write up on the game God Rest Ye Merry, which friends of mine have been raving about ever since.

Tackling Mental Health in Laura Mauro’s Naming the Bones

“First, there was darkness. There were other things too: burning, and frantic motion, and people crying somewhere very far away. But the darkness came first…”

Physical darkness is one of the classic symbols in horror. It’s the place of danger where unnamed things lurk. In as far as the monsters often represent parts of our own psyches, the darkness represents the subconscious, the fearful place where malfromed thoughts and feelings lurk, waiting to spring out at us. As such, the darkness is the perfect beginning for Laura Mauro’s Naming the Bones.

A Story About Mental Health

Naming the Bones is a story rooted in mental health. Londoner Alessa Spiteri, the protagonist of the story, survives a bomb attack on the tube. In the aftermath, she finds herself overwhelmed by the psychological trauma. Then she sees a monster lurking in the darkness and begins to fear that she’s losing her mind. That is until she meets someone else who’s seen what she has, someone with whom she can maybe face the monsters, both in the tunnels and in her own mind.

Mauro’s book addresses one of the most important themes in mental health – how you deal with it. The mechanisms of coping, control, and recovery that sufferers deal with.Even the name of the book points toward this. One of Alessa’s coping strategies is to calm her mind by listing the names of the bones in the human head. Her psychological

Even the name of the book points toward this. One of Alessa’s coping strategies is to calm her mind by listing the names of the bones in the human head. Her psychological defense is built around her understanding, and by extension control, of the physical defenses that protect a brain and the mind within.

Different Approaches to Mental Health

My experiences with mental health aren’t the same as Alessa’s. I’ve struggled with depression and have friends with a range of other issues, but I’ve never had contact with post-traumatic stress. Yet Alessa’s battle with it, and with the monsters that represent it, matched everything I’ve seen about approaches to mental health.

Broadly speaking, I’ve seen two approaches – coping and rebuilding. They can be used together and support each other, but they function in different ways.

Coping is about finding ways to get through the day despite what’s ailing you. In Alessa’s case, it’s about building routines, finding friends to support her, naming the bones in her head. It’s about avoiding the monsters and learning to live despite knowing that they’re out there, both in the darkness and in her mind.

Rebuilding is harder. It means facing the roots of what’s bringing you down. It’s long conversations with professionals and friends about topics that can seem unbearable. It brings long term benefits by building healthier foundations for a mind. But in the short term it can make everything harder to cope with, digging up old hurts and unrecognised difficulties, unravelling malformed coping mechanisms. It’s scary and it’s not something everyone can face.

In Alessa’s case, the trauma monsters make the process of rebuilding very real. Alessa has the chance to literally face her demons, but she has to decide whether that’s the right path for her, as well as how to deal with the darkness when she faces it. And she has to decide who she can trust, whose advice will help and whose will lead to disaster. Because facing monsters, like digging into your own emotional baggage, can be self-destructive if it goes wrong.

Hiding from the Darkness

As someone who’s spent years facing depression, I felt a lot of empathy for Alessa when she wanted to curl up and hide from the world. That created a connection that carried me into a story about how to move on from there. It was dark and intriguing and made me think about people I know and the choices we’ve made about our mental health.

Few genres can match horror for bringing the subconscious into the light. It’s good to see the genre exploring what happens when that darkness lies exposed, how we move on from there.